Typically, Americans only get wind of the intellectual tempests in Paris after the fact and then are left to wonder what it all means. Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles is the latest volley of avant-garde angst from the other side of the Atlantic. Hyberbolic and intimidating, the cover copy announces that we are about to read a “furiously important novel.” The Economist hailed Houellebecq as “France’s biggest literary sensation since Françoise Sagan, people are saying, or since Albert Camus even . . . .” Elle magazine claims it is “the great novel of the end of the millenium.” What are we getting ourselves into, exactly?
L’Affaire Houellebecq, as it is now called, was sparked when his novel was first published in 1998 and immediately became a bestseller. This instant success earned Houellebecq a peculiar collection of enemies in France, including feminists, outraged high school students, the outraged parents of the aforementioned high school students (who labeled him a “moral danger”), and the editorial board of the literary journal Perpendiculaire. Meanwhile, a reactionary Catholic journal took his side. Writing for the New York Times, Anthony Quinn summed up The Elementary Particles as a “bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile book.” Michiko Kakutani’s judgement is even more devastatingly succinct: “It is a deeply repugnant read.” Naturally, I could hardly wait to begin.
From the first page, this novel screams “I am the Zeitgeist! I am the Zeitgeist!” A little too insistently, probably. It is narrated from the perspective of a clone living in 2079 who is recounting the sad history of mankind before the “metaphysical mutation.” This accounts for the odd, dispassionate tone of novel, which shifts from clinical-sounding scientific observations to the intimate personal lives of the characters:
Male rats deprived of maternal contact during infancy exhibit serious disturbances in sexual behavior, especially in mating rituals. If his life depended on it (and, in a very real sense, it did) Michel could not have kissed Annabelle.
These juxtapositions can come off as chilling or ridiculous, depending upon the reader’s disposition. But they are so frequent that Houellebecq risks slipping into that pretentious mode for which the French are so notorious:
A subtle but definitive change had occurred in Western society during 1974 and 1975, Bruno thought to himself. During those years when he was desperately trying to fit in, Western society had tipped towards something dark and dangerous. In the summer of 1976 it was apparent that all of it would end badly.
It is, of course, rather unfair to leap directly into a criticism of the style without first sketching out the plot. Bruno and Michel have the same mother, the precocious playgirl Janine (later, in California, she is “Jane”), but different fathers: Serge Clément, a plastic surgeon, and Marc Djerzinski, a documentary filmmaker, respectively. Both are neglected and abandoned by their mother and left to the care of their grandmothers. Bruno is a chronic masturbator who is perpetually anxious about the diminutive size of his penis, while Michel is so lost in the icy abstractions of biochemistry that he does not even notice that the beautiful Annabelle is in love with him. They are an unhappy and neurotic bunch, to say the least. The altogether futile quest for happiness monetary, professional, spiritual, but mainly sexual is the subject of the book.
There was the school of thought, originating with Freud, that unhappiness is caused by sexual repression. In The Sexual Revolution (1929) and The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich took this idea much further, arguing sexual repression paved the way for the horrors of Hitler and Stalin: “‘Fascism’ is the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian-machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life. . . . It is the mechanistic-mystical character of modern man that produces fascist parties, and not vice-versa.” Therefore, sexual liberation and political emancipation were presumed to be inextricably linked. Assumptions such as these were filtered through the upheavals of Paris 1968, which turns out to be the real target of Houellebecq’s satire.
Things take an especially sordid turn when Bruno shows up at the Lieu de Changement [literally, the place of change], a commune in Big Sur, California: “It was intended that this haven of humanist and democratic feeling would create synergies, facilitate the meeting of minds and, in particular, as one of the founding members put it, provide an opportunity to ‘get your rocks off’.” The commune was a product of “the spirit of 68” rather than some presumably more authentic alternative, since “none of them had actually been involved in the riots.” What follows is an explicit succession of masturbation and blow-job scenes, including Bruno’s epiphany when a stranger performs oral sex on him in a swimming pool.
Aside from all of the descriptions of pathetic sex, the novel does strive to tackle a serious question: “What if it were possible to eliminate lust, jealously, feelings of sexual inadequacy, and sexual reproduction completely? Are clones the inevitable answer to human suffering?” Maybe, but from the way Houellebecq draws out the obscenely despicable parts, one has to suspect he’s having fun.